Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 2007
Fans who love to hear the solid thwack of ball meeting wooden bat in a World Series game, especially when it signals a home run, better prepare for the Great Baseball Bat Crisis. Aluminum has replaced wood in high school and college baseball, and many fans resent the “ping” produced when aluminum collides with ball. But unless a sustained source of the wood that goes into big-league bats is established, aluminum bats may be the fate of major league baseball.
Baseball bats are made out of white ash, a tree that grows in the eastern United States, usually along or near streams. It has straight, fine grain that does not splinter or break easily and can be turned on a lathe to create the smooth finish so familiar to anyone who has played baseball. That is why white ash is the wood of choice. But only the best of an ash tree is used, and many trees do not have the right shape to be used for bats.White ash grows rapidly. It is found naturally on fertile river flood plains where there is ample supply of flowing water and well-drained soil with plenty of minerals. It also likes a lot of sun, and grows best in clearings where there are few trees of other species to compete with it for light.
According to major-league rules, a baseball bat can be no more than 42 inches long and 2 3/4 inches in diameter. As a rough estimate, a bat could be turned on a lathe from 4-by-4-by-4 stock. That’s four-tenths of a cubic foot of wood, the forester’s common measure of wood quantity. In his book “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball,” George Will writes that Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the Louisville Slugger, sold 185,000 bats a year to the big leagues when there were 26 teams. At the same rate of use, today’s 30 teams would need about 214,000 bats a year. Professional Japanese ballplayers also use wooden bats, and there is a move to dump aluminum bats in high school and college baseball. Hillerich & Bradsby produces about 1 million wooden bats a year; only one in five is good enough for major league play.Can the natural growth of white ash keep pace with today’s demand? Will it meet future increased demand? Current harvest is from natural regeneration, not from plantations. It depends on luck and chance, on the right rate of natural forest clearings from fires and storms on the right kind of soil. Maybe not. White ash is suffering from a new disease.
One possibility is that players switch to some other wood. Barry Bonds discovered sugar maple bats and uses them, and his successes have led other players to use them. Sugar maple is a lot more abundant and grows over a much bigger area than white ash, but it too is suffering from new diseases. These tree species need our help or, more specifically, need Major League Baseball’s help.
If trees are grown on plantations and harvested at regular intervals, called rotation times, then the longer the time between cuts, the bigger the trees and the more bats per acre. Computer forecasts suggest that an acre of good bottom land can produce about 100 cubic feet of ash suitable for conversion into baseball bats in 40 years, and 480 cubic feet in 60 years. If the trees are cut every 40 years, 32,640 acres–51 square miles–would yield 214,000 bats a year. Each year, one-fortieth of the land would be cut. By the time the last of the acres in that 32,640 acres were cut, the first acre would be ready for another logging. If baseball can wait 60 years, only 10,240 acres would be needed.
To be on the safe side–in case of fire, hurricanes, insect outbreaks, disease and badly formed trees–it would be wise to leave a good margin for error and plant 20% more than the minimum. A good plan would also include the possibility of global warming, so that one group of plantations would be where white ash grows well now (the best bats come from trees that grow within a 200-mile-long area along the western New York-Pennsylvania border) and others would be where white ash might persist in the future (say, in New Hampshire). This would require twice the land area: 78,000 acres would be needed if the trees were cut when they were 40 years old. Only 20,500 acres would be needed for a 60-year rotation.
At a price of $1,000 an acre, the land would cost $78 million for the 40-year rotation plan, $21 million for the 60-year plan. These costs are within the range of the top contracts in major league baseball — less that the $136 million contract of Alfonso Soriano, the $126 million of Vernon Wells and the $100 million of Carlos Lee — less than any one of the top 11 player’s salaries, which are all greater than $100 million.
All these estimates are rough, back-of-the-scorecard calculations. They could be too low or too high, but they give a general idea of costs. In addition to the expense of buying land, there are costs associated with planting and maintaining the trees, the work of professional foresters. But obtaining the land is the first step.
Strangely, nobody seems to be buying land with the purpose of converting it into sustained white-ash plantations for baseball bats. For the price of a multiyear salary for a top ballplayer, big-league baseball could buy the land that would ensure fans a future of wooden baseball bats.